Monday, September 3, 2012

Who Am I Now?

A logo my student made for our class. We were called 4D for Fourth grade and Deitz.
Until Dave died, I was a teacher for a living. I've been teaching or working in daycare since I was 19. It's all I know. It was my identity. I felt pride when people asked me what I did for a living and I got to respond with teach.

I didn't realize it consciously then, but with distance I can now see that I felt as though I had worth because I had a full time job with good pay and good benefits. I felt like I had a place in the world because I was a professional. Despite the fact that the job was causing me incredible anxiety and stress, I think I felt like a whole person because I worked a "real" job. 

After Dave died, I couldn't go back to work. I mean, I guess I could have if I'd absolutely had to, but I was incredibly lucky to have a principal who told me I didn't have to come back to work unless I wanted to. I took the last month of school off immediately after Dave died and then school let out for the summer. I assumed all along that I'd be back to work the following fall.

When August approached, though, I made the wrenching decision not to return to the classroom. I just couldn't imagine bringing those kids what they needed - a whole, loving, available me -  when I was so busy doing the draining work of grieving. I couldn't quite bring myself to go back. I wasn't able to pull it together in time.

I felt like a failure, and I missed my students terribly, but I also knew it was an essential act of self preservation. I took a year's leave of absence and figured I'd decide then if I wanted to come back to teaching.

When the time came again to decide, I realized it wasn't right for me to return to teaching and I resigned from my position. Again, it was wrenching because once I sent off that letter of resignation, the last trace of my identity was gone.

Wife no longer. Teacher no longer.

With both identities stripped from me, I have felt completely adrift.

It's true that teaching was becoming more stressful than fulfilling the last few years I taught. I was suffering from regular migraines and was sick to my stomach most mornings before work. The stress had finally taken its toll and I was fully burnt out. I know in my gut that staying on would not have been healthy for me even if Dave hadn't died.

On the other hand, if I'm no longer a fourth grade teacher, who am I?

So much of our identities are wrapped up in our jobs. When people ask me what I do now, I feel shameful when I answer "I'm not sure".

I could tell them the truth, that my full time job since Dave died is healing and rebuilding a life from the ground up. I could tell them that my job has been to say goodbye to the best friend I ever had, tear myself from the life we once lived, sell our lovely house, move, buy a new house, build a new community of friends around me, work on my self-image, delve more deeply into my inner me than I've ever attempted before, find a new therapist, try dating again, attend Camp Widow three times, run a 5K, write for two blogs, travel, walk dogs, and train to be a professional dog trainer.

I could say all that, but I don't.

Instead I demure and make excuses. I say things like "I'm in between careers" or "I'm not sure" or "I might go back to school, I haven't decided yet" and I desperately try to change the subject.

When I think of the fact that I no longer have my job, I feel a panicky catch in my throat and my heart starts pounding. I feel my mouth go dry with a nameless dread.

Who am I? What do I do? What's my career? What do I want to do? I have no clear answers for those questions and have the most challenging time learning to give myself some grace for not knowing yet.

I know logically that I am doing my best and that I'm not a lazy, unmotivated person. I understand that with part of my mind, but there is a deeply ingrained part of my brain that fights that and whispers worries to me when I let my guard down for a second. It wonders if I'll ever be motivated to really do anything wholeheartedly again. It wonders if I'm cut out to work full time again at all. It wonders if there's anything out there I really want to do badly enough to work hard for it. It wonders if the part of me that's able to function out there in the work world died with Dave.

It's been 15 months and I'm still not working full time and I feel so badly about this.

However, I picture myself several years in the future wishing I hadn't wasted a second of this period of my life bemoaning my lack of a job or feeling guilty about it.

The future me would say "Heal. Have fun. Live. Stop worrying. You've suffered enough." and I can logically see that she's absolutely right, but the present me is so scared. So incredibly scared.

I'm all I have now. I don't have Dave to depend on. When I was a part of a committed partnership there was a buffer. A cushion. If I fell flat, failed, lost my job, decided to change careers, got hurt or sick, Dave would  be there to cushion the blow, both financially and emotionally. We'd weather the storm together. We'd cling to each other when the winds picked up and thrashed us around this crazy life we sailed through.

I'm all I've got now. Yes, I have incredible support from friends and have no clue how I'd survive without their loving presence, but I have to support myself financially and emotionally now.

It's up to me and it often feels daunting. I know that many widowed people have it much worse than me. They have kids to support and bills they can't pay. I'm extremely lucky in many ways.
I'm still scared. I still feel adrift. 
I still have a difficult time giving myself some grace.

I thought I'd gotten to a really good place with this until the other day when my fridge, oven and AC unit all began to malfunction at once. The AC unit leaked water slowly out into the hallway, damaging the wood trim and drywall. Home owners insurance covered the damage done, but not the repairs to the AC unit. The oven and fridge need new parts to work properly and insurance and the home warranty I purchased didn't cover either.

Something about the three appliances all crapping out on my at once, sent me into a tailspin of fear. How will I do this all alone? Why isn't he here to help me? How will I keep myself financially and emotionally safe when emergencies come my way? The questions crowded my mind and filled me with dread.

The questions aren't helpful because the answers are simple and obvious.

You just will.
Because he died.
You'll figure it out.

And yet knowing the answers doesn't make the fear abate.

I just have to keep working at it until my brain starts to learn to take a different path. A path of confidence, hope and pride. It's going to take hard work. Maybe that will be my full time job for a while, training my brain to be confident, hopeful and feel pride.

I have to be my own biggest fan, cheerleader and supporter but it'll take hard work. I've never done that before. It's my first time trying.

It will take practice and perseverance because I'm a baby at this, learning from the ground up.

The biggest source of comfort for me now is knowing that so many of you who are traveling this road with me will know this fear and will be learning this right along with me.

I am grateful beyond words for this. I feel stronger when I know that I'm not the only one feeling this way. I'm not alone in this journey and neither are you. We're doing it alongside each other and we can support each other in ways no one else can. I thank the heavens above for this and for you, my courageous fellow widowed people.


  1. I quit my job as a mental health clinician the day matt drowned. Like you, I also knew Before that I couldn't do that job for much longer. Matt and I had just (ahem) finalized plans for a move, including his taking over the majority of financial support for us so I could figure out what I wanted to do next.

    I still have no answer, no good answer, when people ask me what I do, or what I might want to do. So often, I hear the question tinged with pity and worry. I really don't know.

  2. I wore the title of wife proudly. I loved being married. I work as a teaching assistant working on getting my teacher's degree. But like you I have so wanted to take a leave of absence, just to figure it all out, taking care of my home, kids, figuring out what to do with the workshop items that had been his, figure out if I really want to be a teacher with the difficulities they will face, and if not where do I go from here. I also have wondered when my enthusiasm for life/ any thing will return? When will living give me joy again that lasts? I am not suicidal and I feel grateful for what I have, others have so much less. But being a widow sucks and I am still searching for my identity.

  3. Cassie,
    I too left the classroom (after 28 years) when my husband got sick, and I completely understand knowing that you weren't whole enough to teach. When the right job comes along you will know it and you will find that strength that has always been there to get on with it. Don't beat yourself up and remember the hell you have been through.

    1. Thanks so much for your kind words. I will try.

  4. I am right there with you - still working at my same job, but definitely wondering if I'll ever be motivated again. Right now it's just the minimum so I don't get fired or sued. I actually like my job but I used to do it with my husband, so I feel his absence every day in what I do. It's just not fun any more.

    Losing my cheerleader, the person I knew would back me up and having to do it for myself - that's really tough. My husband gave me the self confidence that I lacked. He always thought I was so much better than I did. Now I'm going to have to find that confidence and approval somewhere within myself and I'm scared too.

    Good luck! You are definitely not alone and we can both do it.

    1. No we're not and yes we can. Hugs.

  5. Once again you really nailed it with your words today. I have come to think that I won't have an answer for anyone when they ask me "what do you do?" I still get so flustered when strangers ask, like I don't want to be different from everyone else. My purpose in life...what is it now? I feel very empty, like I really can't offer much to anyone.

    1. Exactly. It is such a comfort to know that I'm not the only one struggling with this. It gets better for others further along on this journey than me, so I figure all evidence points to it getting better for me, too, but the fear is STILL there.

  6. I must say this blog gives me so much comfort. My young widows group imploded a few years ago (for me, anyway) and I am grateful that somehow these blogs appear on my facebook page. I repost most of these blogs- for other widows or for my family and friends so that they can reap the rewards of reading your words and gain some insight to what we go through. Keep writing...please!!!!!

  7. I am in process of leaving my job. It's been 22 months since my husband passed. I've completed my MBA this spring in his honor. But I have no idea what I am going to do next. My identity is gone. I have no idea who I am or what to do next. Despite my training and 15 years in a Fortune 500 global company, I feel equipped to do nothing. My husband gave me confidence, belief in myself and courage to try. I'm hoping a break with renew belief in myself but I'm also afraid I won't find a job again. I do need to support myself. It is so good to know this is part of the process, that others have experienced this and come out with a purpose and a job they believed in. We are all going to get through this...sometimes a minute at a time but we will get through this.

  8. Cassie,
    So brave! I wont go into all of my changes-but you captured the essence of rebuilding our lives after loss. I so understand the part of having to give ourselves a break.
    Thank you and please keep writing!!

  9. HI Cassie,
    It is so hard to be brave, isn't it? I know exactly how you feel. I have skipped two years of holiday parties to avoid people asking, "so what are you up to?", or "what do you do?" I have no answer for them besides, just "staying alive". I lost a part of myself when he died. I have been blessed financially to be able to fall apart, rebuild and grieve for three years. The creativity, the initiative and energy a job/career requires was missing.It was all I could do to raise the children. My husband was my cheerleader as well, and he also gave me the confidence I needed. Like you I thank my friends, but I think finding the way back is a lot of work that only we can do. But as time has gone by,my spirit feels freer to trust myself, knowing I am doing the best I can. Take your time. and remember to love yourself. Hugs.

    1. Thank you. It's such a relief to hear that you've felt freer to trust yourself as time's gone by.
      Thank you so much for reaching out to me. Hugs back.

  10. I could have written this! I'm so relieved to know I'm not the only woman to lose her identity when my husband passed away. I thought I was losing my mind.......thank you so much for this post!

    1. You're so welcome. It helps me immeasurably to hear that my post helped you feel less alone. It's such a symbiotic thing, this blog.

  11. I am so grateful to know that other widows are feeling the same way I am. It has been 29 months since my husband passed away and I am still not able to work. I am in a sales position and he was my cheerleader. He propped me up and propelled me forward. I don't know when I will get the confidence back to go out in the business world.

    1. We'll get there. As those who've gone before us have shown us, right?

  12. Thanks for your post. I too feel this way "Who am I know?" I know this is old fashioned but I loved my identity as Mike's wife. I loved our life together and felt full filled, content and happy at who I had become. I've always worked and continue to, but it's just a job, it's not a career that is important like a Dr, is its a managerial position in an office, and it pays the bills. Now without my better half I am searching what is there for me now? I haven't found that answer but am searching and thanks to SSLF it gives me hope that I can find something that will bring a new purpose and that I can bring my Mike with me somehow, someway, just trying to be open to the new possibilities because this day to day just plan stinks.

  13. Thanks for this post. I can so relate to this post. I have no idea who I am now. After my husband Mike died I worked the same job for 8 months was just going through the motions. Then I quit and didn't work for 6 months. I then got a temp job for 4 months but didn't like it. I have been working a permanent job for 4 months now but don't like this one either. I wonder if I will ever find something I like doing. I am staying open to new things, looking for other jobs and checking into the possibility of going back to school. I hope to find a purpose for my life.

  14. Your words are exactly what I needed to read today.
    I too don't know how to answer, "What do you do?".
    I survive but, when am I ever going to feel motivated to find what I'm supposed to do now? Where is my cheerleader, my husband who had my back, who gave me the confidence to try something new? I am scared, REALLY scared, so much more afraid than I've let myself admit.
    I get it. I'm so attached to my fear. It's a constant companion. The fear is starting to paralyze me.
    And truly the worst part is I feel like a big loser and a failure for not having a career. I will be a bad role model for my kids if I don't find a way to take care of myself.
    A friend's husband said to me recently that my children's whole lives will be affected by how I respond to this tragedy. Thanks, that's not too daunting. Oh, and what exactly do you know about widowhood?
    Oops, and here comes the anger, too. Another close friend of my fear!
    Please know Cassie that I am thankful to read your words. As odd as it my sound to a non widow, it comforts me beyond measure that you are experiencing the same fear and dread. I know I'm not alone.

  15. I so know that feeling of being adrift, I have purposely avoided social situations where someone might ask "and what do you do?". I still manage the business we had, and a seasonal family resort, but talking about them brings no joy anymore. My identity was tied to his, and the lines have been set free, so like many of you, I am drifting along, no goal in sight, no plan going forward, just here, no purpose. When I am overwhelmed with the house and car and bills and life, I often tell myself "you are doing the best you can with where you're at, at this moment". That's all any of us can do.

    Thank YOU, Cassie, for putting into words how many of us feel. You do have a gift for writing.

  16. Thank you for sharing , thru your post I've realized I've lost my identity .. I didn't know. My hubbys death was sudden, unexpected and traumatic. In my numbness I did see a therapist for a few months , was diagnosed PTSD and quit going. It's been 19 months I have a hard time making decisions .. even simple ones , I avoid anything that takes emotions , I'm finding I'm still numb. I guess being aware is the most important thing right ? I mean we must be aware in order to take the steps to change. I sometimes feel I'm an epic failure then remind myself , I'm still in the baby stages it took me thefirst year just to get a grip.. if thats what one wants to call it. I'm learning and growing sometimes I'm weak and scared but it's okay I'm just trying to find my way.. Posts such as thisbring me to awareness and for that I am greatful. Love to us all

  17. Nice post. I feel like I have lost 1/2 of myself; we met when we were 18 so I have developed my entire adult identity based on this relationship. Going back to work will be a challenge as I teach nursing and I had to practice far too many nursing skills on my husband as he battled cancer for 16 months. Thank you for your post, it really validates the question that is becoming too clear to me: Who am I?

  18. I have read dozens, maybe even hundreds, of blog and articles about being widowed. This is the first one to truly speak to me. To say the words that I am feeling. To explain what is happening within me.

    Wife no longer. Dance Teacher no longer. Professional Businesswoman no longer.

    Thank you, thank you, thank you - a million times over - for proving that I am not alone on this journey.

    Sending you hugs, prayers, and peace.

  19. You're welcome a million times over. I can't fully express how much your comment means to me and how good it feels to hear that you felt that way when you read this.
    Hugs, prayers and peace right back.

  20. I've been a widow for almost 4 months- I am lost. We were married for 39 years. We were married very young so I have never been on my own. I feel like I have lost my best friend. I have lost a huge part of me. Our children are all grown and families of their own. This is a lonely, scary place in life. My husband passed away suddenly and I was with him. I think about those moments so much. I just want him to come home. I feel so alone- adrift is a good way to describe it. I was his wife,their mother. Now I feel like I have lost my identity.

  21. I just read these posts today.
    I have been a'widow' now for 4 months.
    What a strange word to use to describe myself.
    I was married 35 years to a wonderful man,my best friend.
    I am still at a job that I do not like.
    I need to work ,financially and emotionally.
    I also am trying to future out 'who am I now' now?
    What to do next,where to go.
    I have one son who lives in Europe. No other family.
    good friends.
    But as you all state we are on our own.
    Thank-you for this place.
    I do feel that we (me) will all be OK in the future.
    It is the journey that is hard.